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The poster boy for perseverance and self-evaluation


In person, Morris Chestnut looks a lot like he does on magazine covers and on movie screens—good-looking of course, but also self-confident and relaxed. He sits sort of next to and sort of across from me on a couch that’s way too overstuffed, and we sink deeply into it at first. The awkwardness is momentary—he’s too straight-up pleasant to even think about feeling tense around him.


The 32-year-old actor may still be best remembered for his strong debut as Ricky in John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), but since then, he’s also appeared in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, with Steven Seagal (1995), G.I. Jane, with Demi Moore (1997), and The Best Man (1999). His new film is The Brothers, in which he plays Jackson Smith, a young pediatrician who is contemplating a serious commitment to his girlfriend (Gabrielle Union), while coming to terms with his parents’ failures and his own expectations of them.



Cynthia Fuchs:

The film opens in a shrink’s office, during Jackson’s session. This is an unusual way for a film about black men to begin.



Morris Chestnut:

Yes it is. And I’m excited about it. I’m a doctor in this movie, driving a nice car, have good-looking girlfriends, so on the surface, people will think this guy has everything. But so often in movies, a lead character is shown as perfect. I felt it was important to convey to people, especially younger people, that everything on the surface is not always what it seems.



CF:

There’s a mix here, of what might be considered traditionally “chick flick” concerns and some guy movie concerns.



MC:

There is. A lot of times, women don’t get the male perspective in regards to a relationship, what men go through when they’re not really dealing well. So it offers a fly on the wall perspective on the men in some scenes, as well as scenes with my [character’s] mother, girlfriend, and sister, their issues with men. So I think women will enjoy seeing that, as well as what, for instance, my character is going through when Denise [Gabrielle Union] and he are breaking up. Most women feel that once they break up with a guy, he runs off to play basketball, while they [the women] are sitting there, dealing with the whole thing emotionally. That’s not the case. And I think from a male perspective, we have men talking about their feelings and it being okay. So, I’m a doctor and have a nice car, but it’s still okay for me to have problems.



CF:

Do you think those distinctions between guy movies and girl movies still hold?



MC:

I think so. In a movie like this, it’s difficult to draw the line, but for a movie like Exit Wounds, there aren’t too many females who want to see that. I think the best type of action movie combines a love story with the action. And I think that can appeal to both genders.



CF:

Don’t men like romance too?



MC:

Oh yeah, I’m a huge romance fan. And some women like action. But that’s a small segment of the population. The studios have been successful marketing action movies with buddy protagonists, but I want to do an action movie that’s based around a love story, so the two central characters are male and female, and not necessarily black male and black female, maybe black male and white female.



CF:

I know that you have a movie about the Attica uprising for Showtime. What do you think about cable as a venue for movies?



MC:

I’m very excited about that. Showtime has given new, young filmmakers—black, white, across the board—an opportunity to make films, as well as actors who want to cross over into directing.



CF:

Is that a direction you want to go?



MC:

Producing, not directing. You have to be insane to direct. First of all, you don’t get any sleep. You’re at the set all day, then have to go home and watch the dailies and set up the shots for the next day. Everyone comes to you for the answers. I don’t really want that responsibility. I’m too lazy. Producing is easier, I can just be at the set overseeing the story. I don’t have to be in charge of every single angle, every single word, should he wear the blue shirt or the red shirt, or the light red shirt?



CF:

And what kinds of films would you want to produce?



MC:

Coming of age stories, and some romances. Particularly in African American filmmaking, there aren’t too many love stories. The trend is swinging that way right now, but we still haven’t seen many. There’s always something else—“My brother got shot, but I love you.”



CF:

When you think about audiences, whom do you imagine them to be?



MC:

I want to tell stories for everyone, primarily. At one point, people thought that Eddie Murphy would only reach one sector of the audience, but now everyone sees everything Eddie Murphy does. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be at that point.



CF:

I saw this month’s Ebony cover story. The photo pitches you and Shemar Moore as sexy bodies. This is more typically a position for women actors, and I’m wondering how you think about it.



MC:

I’m not going to take my shirt off in every movie. They wanted me to take my shirt off for The Best Man, and for this movie, at first I wasn’t going to take my shirt off. But they kept asking me. But I don’t want it to be, “Okay, Morris Chestnut’s in this movie, 5-4-3-2-1… he’s taking his shirt off.” I want viewers to relate to me on a different level, not just a sexual level. It’s cool, but I feel so much better when people come up to me and say, “You’re a great actor,” than when they say, “You look good.” So the parts I’m drawn to allow me to show range. To me the work is so much more interesting, the parts that don’t require you just to take your shirt off. For some actors, you can tell, that scene is in the movie so he can take his clothes off: I don’t want to become that actor.



CF:

In the past and sometimes still, black actors have been pressured to represent. Do you feel any of that pressure?



MC:

I don’t feel that pressure. As a black man, I represent because I pick diverse roles and focus on entertaining. At the end of the day, they’re going to pay me to entertain, they’re not going to pay me to represent. I feel that I carry myself in interviews or even out in public so that I represent.



CF:

You seem very grounded, which is not always the case for people in the industry.



MC:

That’s attributable to my mother and my father, they’re always striving to make me humble, and encouraging me to be myself. When I’m at my mother’s house, I’m taking out the trash and cleaning the carpet, that keeps me straight. And when I first came into this industry, I never wanted to be engulfed by it, because very few people have longevity. And even if I did sustain some type of longevity, I didn’t want the industry to be my life. This is not an industry that you want to dictate the type of life you lead. It provides me with my income and a nice lifestyle, and that’s cool, but if the bottom were to fall out, I’ll be disappointed, but life wouldn’t be over.



CF:

You broke out in Boyz N the Hood, way back in 1991. How have things changed for you since then?



MC:

I’ve kept my friends from before all this stuff happened. It wasn’t a conscious effort, but my friends aren’t all actors. I feel fortunate, because you look at Boyz N the Hood, and the people in it have since been nominated for Academy Awards, Cuba [Gooding Jr.], Angela [Bassett], and Larry [Fishburne]. When I was in that film, I was so green, I knew very little about acting. It would have been easy for me to think that they’re achieving all this success, and where am I? So I had to reevaluate myself and my talent. I had to look at me to decide what to do to sustain my career. And that’s why I’m here today, because so many people are in these big movies and then you never hear from them again, because they don’t work on their craft. I’m the poster boy for perseverance and self-evaluation. It’s a difficult thing to do in life, not just this industry. At the end of the day, when you look in the mirror and brush your teeth at night, you have to deal with you. I’ve been really honest with myself and hard on myself, but I think it’s paid off.



CF:

What have you done to work on your craft?



MC:

Reading books, some on acting, and studied. I’ve become more of a student of human behavior, when I meet people but also, just watching talk shows, like Sally Jesse Raphael—you really see people on those shows. I search for the emotion I need to convey, and let everything else come from there. I try not to be too technical, because for me it can be mechanical. I see that I need to begin a scene at point A and by the end of it I need to be at point J, and I go through the journey. I’m getting to the point where they see me as a good actor, rather than just a good guy who can act. And even if the good actor won’t always get The Job, the good actor always works. That’s why they use the same actors over and over again. If you’re good at what you do, they’re going to want you to do it. I want to be able to do other things, like comedy, but I know that for now, where my bread is buttered is being the romantic lead, or the straight man.



CF:

Boyz came at the beginning of a boom in hood movies, now The Brothers seems to be part of a shift to another kind of movie.



MC:

There’s definitely a shift. Hollywood is in the business of making money—I always say, it’s not black or white, it’s green. At the time of Boyz, that’s what was making money, so they went with it. This new trend is making money now, and they don’t want to take risks to do it.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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